With the sitting U.S. president declaring journalists “the enemy of the American people” and dismissing the work of respected outlets like The New York Times and NBC as “fake news” – all while his detractors pine for the next Woodward and Bernstein to untangle a mass of White House scandals even Deep Throat would choke on – it is, to say the least, an interesting period to be a college journalism major.
“In a lot of ways, I think the era that we’re in right now is the most exciting – and, I would argue, the most important – time in the history of journalism,” says Christopher Callahan, dean of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
For the veteran newsman, who served as an Associated Press correspondent in the 1980s before moving into higher education, that excitement is coupled with the reality that his school now plays an outsized role in Valley media. The city’s news-gathering industry as a whole has contracted over the past decade, with diminished staffs at The Arizona Republic and the demise of many smaller papers. At the same time, the work produced by Cronkite’s students has been gaining in reach as legitimate news content, thanks largely to the school’s acquisition in 2014 of Arizona PBS (KAET), the PBS station that had been based at ASU’s Tempe campus since its formation in 1961 but operated under its Office of Public Affairs. With KAET now part of Cronkite’s Downtown Phoenix campus and with Callahan as its CEO, students operate under a “teaching hospital model,” putting together a nightly newscast on KAET that reaches 1.9 million households and providing content for its website, which is often picked up by commercial news outlets.
“We have a big Washington bureau that’s covering just Arizona and Southwest issues for our news consumers in the region – and we’re the only Washington bureau of an Arizona news organization in D.C,” Callahan says. “There’s a real feeling that we have the ability to make the world, or at least our own communities, better through this profession,” he says. “And that just radiates out of these students.”
Callahan agrees that the attention on the news media under Trump – countered by public support for hard-hitting journalism (Pew Research reports subscriptions for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune have surged since the election) – has intensified the students’ interest in investigative and political journalism. “I think they’ve had that all along,” he quickly adds. “National politics of the recent vintage may have underscored their decision to study journalism at the Cronkite School. But they were already there. They were already involved, largely because of our emphasis on the important role they play in our communities and – not to sound too grandiose – in our democracy.”
Journalism schools are tricky to rank, but The Knight Foundation notes that Cronkite has finished in the top 10 nationally in the Hearst Journalism Awards for the past 15 years. In terms of overall reputation, the young school resides in an echelon somehwere below Columbia University, the University of Missouri and Northwestern University – often cited as the top three.
David Cuillier, interim director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, praises Callahan’s involvement in national organizations and knack for attracting ace journalists as professors (Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times editor Sarah Cohen, a former student, was a recent hire).
“Chris Callahan has a strong reputation as a national leader in journalism education,” Cuillier says. “His program attracts incredible grant-funded projects and outstanding faculty.”
Cronkite’s faculty, reflecting its student body – nearly 40 percent non-white – is intentionally diverse. Half of the new faculty members hired in the past three years are people of color; two-thirds are women. “If the country’s growing more and more diverse – which it is – then you have to have newsrooms that reflect that diversity in order to cover, appropriately and deeply, those communities,” Callahan says. The outreach expands beyond race and gender. In 2008, the National Center on Disability and Journalism relocated to Cronkite, bringing disability activists to integrate coverage of people with disabilities into the curriculum.
The school’s biggest inclusivity initiative is its borderlands bureau, where students report from the U.S.-Mexico border, and its Spanish-language newscast, Cronkite Noticias, which airs on Univision sister network UniMás. “We spend more time on the border than any news organization,” Callahan says.
At 57, Callahan, who’s been married to wife Jeanmarie for more than 30 years and has two sons – Casey, 20, a sophomore at ASU’s School of Arts, Media and Engineering, and Cody, 25, an ASU W.P. Carey School of Business grad who now does baseball analytics for the Arizona Diamondbacks (“He’s living my dream and probably all my friends’ dreams!”) – hasn’t had much time lately for running marathons, which he often did growing up in Garden City, New York. An old-school reporter at heart, Callahan nonetheless became an early adopter of new media, penning the manual A Journalist’s Guide to the Internet back in 1998 (now in its third edition). As the school’s founding dean, Callahan has made bridging the gap between traditional reportage and social media-based citizen journalism a core focus.
“Our first goal is producing real, impactful, probing journalism,” he says. “But we also need to embrace all the new technologies that can help us tell stories in better, more compelling ways, to bring in new audiences, to engage younger audiences.”
Next on the agenda: conquering fake news. “It’s hard for even smart people to decipher what’s real and what’s not today. What can we do as the news media, and as universities, to give news consumers better tools for them to assess what is indeed truthful from what isn’t?”
If anyone can solve the “news literacy” problem, it may be Cronkite students.
“If I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is just wander into one of the newsrooms where the students are working and watch for five minutes. After that, I’m ready to go!”
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